How’s this for a hackneyed-and-obvious opening: the Tampa Bay Rays aren’t going to sneak up an anyone anymore. Two division titles in three years, arguably the best front office in baseball, a 25-year old third baseman who is already one of the best players in baseball, and a farm system that continues to be one of the best around will do that. Despite their budget issues and the depature of Carl Crawford for divisional rival Boston, Tampa Bay isn’t packing it in for 2011, as exemplified the impressively affordable acquisitions of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. But it can’t all be about Evan Longoria, Damon (I hear he’s always wanted to be a Ray!), Manny, Jeremy Hellickson, and the rest. There are some less-frequently-discussed Rays who are going to have to produce in 2011 if Tampa Bay is going to make another run at the playoffs. How well (and how much) do you think these players will play in 2011?
While the recent signing of Zombie Casey Kotchman to a minor-league contract freaked out some Rays fans, Dan Johnson, also known as The Great Pumpkin, currently sits atop the first base depth chart in Tampa Bay. Full disclosure: Johnson is one of “my guys” to whom I have taken a (somewhat irrational, particularly since I am not a Rays fan) shine. He had his moments with Oakland, but got traded, spent 2009 in Japan, then raked at AAA for the Rays before coming up to the big leagues and hitting decently. Although Marcel isn’t too impressed, some of the other projections (albeit relying heavily on translations of minor-league and Japanese statistics) are pretty optimistic about Johnson’s abilities with the bat. But don’t look at those yet: what does the Wisdom of the Crowd say. How well will Johnson hit for the Rays in 2011? Will he get a fair shot?
Across the infield, Reid Brignac is finally getting the shortstop job full-time. As a young prospect, Brignac’s bat was a selling point while his chances of staying at shortstop were questioned. Although his bat plateaued in high minors, his reputation as a fielder improved. Brignac’s (occasional?) double-play partner Sean Rodriguez, who came over in the Scott Kazmir trade, might be part of an interesting platoon. It isn’t clear yet, but it may be that Rodriguez will play second only versus southpaws with Ben Zobrist in right, while against right-handed pitching Zobrist will move to second with Matt Joyce playing right-field. Joyce is another one of the younger Rays who looks to be getting more playing time this season. Brignac, Rodriguez, and Joyce have been role-players in the past, and but those roles are expanding, and how well they perform will go a long way to determining the Rays’ fate this season. What say you?
The Tampa Bay bullpen had a fair bit of turnover during the off-season, and three former Royals figure to be in the 2011 mix. Kyle Farnsworth has a bad reputation after some awful seasons a few years back, but after a rocky start, wasn’t horrible (despite still being overpaid) with the Royals. What will his role be with the Rays, and how will he respond to his return to the American League East? Farnsworth may be joined in the bullpen by another piece acquired during Kansas City’s Greatest Offseason in the History of Whatever: Juan Cruz. After his disastrous performances of 2008 and 2009, will he even make the team, and if so, will he be useful? Finally, we come to J.P. Howell, who came to Tampa Bay in one of Dayton Moore’s early trades for… wait for it… Joey Gathright. Howell was a dominating strikeout reliever in 2008 and 2009 despite having a fastball in the mid-80s. He missed all of 2010 due to injury. Will he approach his earlier level of performance? Relief pitchers tend to be the most under-projected group of players by the fans, so let’s hear from you.
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